I recently spent two weeks in the Pacific Northwest, hopscotching from Seattle to Walla Walla (Wine Blogger Conference), down to Portland (business) and back up to Seattle (Les Dames d’Escoffier Conference). But in between Portland and Seattle, I squeezed in 36 hours in glorious Willamette Valley.
I’d never been to Willamette Valley, and while I’ve spent, collectively, months’ worth of of time in Napa Valley and AVAs all over Santa Barbara County, and I was dying of curiosity about Willamette Valley. And of thirst, of course. I’m always dying of thirst! If you’re not familiar with many Willamette Valley wineries, read on, because they are making some seriously delicious wines and it’s a great destination for wine lovers.
A Few Basics on Willamette Valley
- Willamette Valley has established a global reputation for exceptional Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, and more recently, sparkling wines. In less than 50 years, this region has put its flag in the ground and it’s got the grape-growing and winemaking chops to impress.
- Willamette Valley is almost too fertile to grow grapes. Mmm hmmm … too fertile. Some of the most storied vineyards in the world make life a struggle for the grapes, which intensifies the fruit and the resulting wines. In Napa Valley, and also in Red Mountain AVA in Washington, practically every square inch of plantable land is planted to vineyards. But in Willamette Valley, you’ll see lush green pastures for grazing cows and sheep, tons of Christmas tree farms, tree fruit orchards (apples, peaches), and wheat and oat fields.
- Willamette Valley is huge, encompassing 3.4 million acres, or 5,372 square miles — 100 miles long and 50 miles across at it widest point. For comparison, Napa Valley is much smaller — 30 miles long and just a few miles wide. So there’s a huge breadth of differences in climate, topography, geology and all that stuff.
I got to visit three amazing wineries: Beaux Fréres, a small winery with a cult-like following and biodynamic approach, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the Oregon outpost of the legendary French winery, and Sokol Blosser, one of the Valley’s original pioneers. Keep reading to find out more and and then maybe you want to book a trip or add some Willamette Valley wines to your shopping list.
This place is a trip. Started by Mike Etzel and his brother in law, Robert Parker Jr., in 1988 (mmm hmmm, that Robert Parker — the one who invented wine scores, and The Wine Advocate), this is one of the coolest, kookiest wineries I’ve ever visited, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Candice Robben, brand ambassador for Beaux Frères, invited me for lunch and a tasting. But this visit was so much more than that!
For one thing, Mike Etzel brings in a chef during harvest to cook lunch for the entire crew (which numbers less than 20). The day I visited, it was delicious baked chicken, with lentils and roasted peppers. Bottles were opened and plopped all up and down the big, hand-made wooden table and everyone sat – me between Mike Etzel and his son, Mikey, who is the current winemaker.
At 120 acres in total, with 35 acres planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Beaux Frères produces less than 10,000 cases of wine each year, making it kind of a “cult wine.” When Mike Etzel bought his first 88 acres in 1986 for $129,000 (I cannot even imagine what that amount would be today), he just wanted to grow and sell grapes. But then the winemaking bug bit. Etzel was “in the Ponzi school,” mentored by the likes of Dick Ponzi and Dick Erath. He does not sell grapes anymore. He sells some of the most artfully made wines in all of Willamette Valley.
Etzel farms biodynamically and thinks of biodynamics as “a way to manage your land.” I really liked his perspective, because it’s less scientific than it is philosophical. He talked about the surrounding forest and how every living organism, from soil to plants, bugs, trees, people, trolls (yep, trolls) impacts the entire ecosystem. “It’s our responsibility to not break the chain of life,” he said.
And the wines? The wines are freaking glorious!
Beaux Frères Gran Moraine 2016 Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton ($75). Like diving into a cave of cherries and cocoa. This wine has depth and richness that elevates every signature mark of Pinot Noir, from earthiness to mushrooms to dried violets.
Beaux Frères Willamette Valley pinot Noir 2016 ($60) Ooooh. Sexy. Like finding milk-chocolate covered cherries at the bottom of the pile of crunchy fall leaves you just raked.
Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($95) This is the mac-daddy of all the Pinots at Beaux Frères. Huge, fruit-forward, deep, crazy long finish, like a burgundy-colored satin glove enveloping every surface of your mouth.
I could go on about the hike that Candice and I did after lunch, along the “Troll Trail” (I’ve never seen so many shades of green) past crazy lush ferns and mosses. That hike kind of brought it all together in my mind. Beaux Frères is about the land — every single part of it, from the grasses and ferns and mosses in the forest – and the trolls — to the soil, sunlight and slope of the vineyards. The wines express all these things in beautiful ways.
Sokol Blosser (Disclosure: Sokol Blosser is a client of mine, but these opinions are my own and the wines were purchased by me.)
I was super excited to finally lay eyes on this place, as I’d been familiar with Sokol Blosser wines for years. Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser were two of the original pioneers to stake their claim with wine in Willamette valley in 1971, and the second generation is leading the winery now, with some exciting innovation and beautiful wines.
Winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser crafts Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, as well as Pinot Gris and their newest sparkler, Bluebird Cuvée. And like Beaux Frères, Sokol Blosser is all about the land. Each wine has a story behind it of the vineyards it came from and how that vineyard’s site affects the fruit and the resulting wine.
Sokol Blosser has been a player in the Oregon sparkling wine game for years now, but just launched Bluebird Cuvée ($28) and it is a beautiful sparkling wine. Its has an elegant texture with notes of citrus and yeasty brioche. I love it. For now, it’s available online or at the winery, but it may expand distribution soon.
Sokol Blosser Twelve Row Block Pinot Noir 2016 ($65) – This is a funky, funky Pinot Noir with a bold personality busting with herbs and tobacco notes, layered among the signature cherry and earth notes. I can’t wait to try it with a roasted pork tenderloin or maybe just a bunch of bacon!
Sokol Blosser Big Tree Block Pinot Noir 2015 ($75) – This is just a great signature Pinot Noir full of earthy mushroom notes on the nose, and a beautiful mix of red fruits. These vineyards and the winemaking come together for a really artful expression of Pinot Noir.
I went to this winery on the recommendation of a bunch of friends and also because it represents what I call “the French invasion” of Willamette Valley. There are tons of French – notably from Bourgogne — wine families putting down roots in Willamette Valley. The Drouhin family is one, but the Jadot family too (at Resonance Winery, soon to open in 2019), and Maisons and Domaines Henriot added Beaux Frères to their own family in 2019. And just a bit southeast of McMinnville, Master Sommelier Larry Stone has started Lingua Franca Winery, with consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon at the helm.
Domaine Drouhin is positively gorgeous, high on a ridge, with a commanding view of the whole valley. I breezed right in and met Maeghan Hebert in the tasting room and she took me through the portfolio. Veronique Drouhin is the winemaker here, as she is at Drouhin’s winery in Bourgogne, France. She interned with Willamette originals David Lett and the team at Brooks winery, so she understands the local terroir and possibilities.
I positively loved their wines. The French influence definitely comes through in “that extra something” — the sense of terroir that complements the fruit, oak, if used, and all the other elements.
Arthur Chardonnay 2016 ($35). A really gorgeous expression of one of my favorite grapes. Half the juice goes through MLF (malo-lactic fermentation – the process by which wines lose their natural, bitter malic acid and it gets converted to lactic acid, which gives Chardonnay a kiss of “butteriness”). Then part of the wine goes into stainless steel and part into 30% new French oak. After 10 months, they are blended and the result is this citrusy, sunshine glass of Chardonnay. Delicious.
Joseph Drouhin Saint Romain Chardonnay 2015 ($25, I think) I wanted to try this next to the Arthur to compare, as this is one of the Drouhin family’s French wines – which is cool, that you can buy some of those at the Oregon winery! I tasted it and it is delicious with trademark Burgundian notes – mineral layers on top of lemon curd and a little bit of floral peeking out, too.
Roserock Pinot Noir 2015 ($35) This is everything I love about Pinot Noir! Just the right amount of earthy, dried fall leaves, dried cherries, cranberries, a little pop of black pepper. Really, really well-done.